In a bizarre political move, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has taken a “sabbatical” to reflect on the Grand Old Party’s future course of action. Given its ridiculous ill-timing, when the Union government is presenting the most important budget of the past two decades, a rift between mother and son seems the most likely cause. It is unfathomable what his contemplations may achieve, but one thing it has ensured is that the Congress’s most prominent face will not be leading the party in any charged battles against the National Democratic Alliance government for the next two weeks.

To many media outlets, pundits and politicians, Gandhi’s sudden withdrawal has come as no surprise. His political career thus far has been spotted with similar disappearing acts, repeated electoral failures, and displays of hesitant leadership and mediocre intellectual acuity.

The Congress’s consistent losses at the hustings for the past two years have called into question the “party work” Gandhi has pursued. His inability to form a coherent socio-political vision in interviews and his pathetic participation in the Lok Sabha mean that we still do not really know “what Rahul Gandhi wants” for India. His routine wavering in matters of leadership – at one point tearing up ordinances and at other points refusing any administrative responsibility – has left every observer of politics (as also his partymen) dazed. Because of the vacillations and unoriginality, Rahul Gandhi – to turn Machiavelli on his head – is neither feared nor loved; he is ridiculed.

However, Rahul Gandhi, by accounts of people working with him, is hardworking and good willing. His frequent admission that he is a child of privilege and a symptom of the system he wants to change needs to be admired. He probably does his political work more out of a sense of noblesse oblige than any innate interest in politics or policy. So how come he blew it and became the butt of jokes?

Institutionalising processes

Since Rahul Gandhi’s inception into politics in 2004, as Aarti Partharian’s biography of him makes clear, his approach towards political work has been that of a management consultant institutionalising an organisation or a business. Just like strategy gurus want corporates to adopt process-driven decision-making in everything from product development to supply-chain management, Gandhi wants to replace the patronage-infested, nepotistic and centralised Congress with a party that institutionalises processes. He wants it to regulate entries, nominations and promotion within its hierarchy.

This strategy required that Gandhi stay out of the limelight for a long time and focus instead on building the machineries for the National Students’ Union of India and the Indian Youth Congress.

For Gandhi, institutionalising entry, promotion and nomination would ensure that outsiders could enter politics without the inevitable horse trading that comes with attempts to get a ticket. This is what he meant in his inchoate suggestions of “opening the system” to Arnab Goswami in the infamous interview before the general election. Easier entry and participation would make party policy reflect people policy, bring new social groups like youth and urbanised sections into the party and ensure that it gets a dedicated cadre.

Clearly, this has not worked out.

The Congress today has its lowest ever tally in the Lok Sabha and is getting wiped out from several regions. Moreover, the results of the internal elections in many cases seem to have perpetuated the same princeling caste – as opposed to getting outsiders.

Power flows from patronage

This approach of Gandhi and his coterie of Ivy League-educated management graduates highlighted a fundamental flaw in their understanding of politics in India. Parties are the way they are because of the underlying socio-political conditions.

India remains 70% rural, with caste or religious politics being the central vote-getter in most of the rural hinterland. As most local journalists would attest, the hinterland remains an arena with weak state presence and virulent community or caste competition. The modernisation effort that produces the sense of citizenship and middle-class coalitions willing to fight against corruption and other ills of governance has simply not transpired in much of India.

In such an India – as with other poor democratic polities across the world – patronage automatically becomes the root of power. Booze, cash, caste and family loyalty as well as muscle are deployed by parties and politicians because they work. They work because abject poverty and a medieval communitarian mindset necessitate a predisposition towards immediate giveaways as opposed to general progress, and familial or clan loyalty as opposed to a feeling of citizenship. On the other hand, in cities such as Delhi – where development ensures clans and castes become citizens and social classes – issues of corruption and electricity prices (as opposed to caste mobilisation) take the centre stage.

Secondly, the space of the state, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta noted in his excellent The Burden of Democracy, becomes the avenue for competition for communities. The winner ensures that the spoils of victory (tenders, promotions, hiring of clerical staff, electricity management, etc.) go to “his people” (which usually translates to his caste).

Bogged down in nepotism

In such a set-up, it is only natural that political parties become family fiefs. Family continuation allows for that same feudal attachment and simplistic adulation that is so characteristic of societies bereft of modernity. They also allow the formation of hierarchies through which patronage could be disbursed.

Often parties that focus on ideologies – as with the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindutva – have retained only lower middle and middle classes as their support bases. Narendra Modi has extended this core base through grassroots religious polarisation, coupled with added emphasis on development, to attract urban communities and migrant youth.

Give all these conditions, Rahul Gandhi’s ambitious project to modernise Congress was unlikely to succeed despite best intentions. It was expected to get muddled in patronage and family nepotism – which the Youth Congress eventually did. The project failed to keep in mind that ultimately winnability has to guide ticket distribution. That is why a Nehru-Gandhi dynasty member is required by Congress partymen to lead most important campaigns. It is ironic that Gandhi never took this into account while organising the Congress Party machinery, even though his promotion to vice presidency was based on this factor.

Such a flawed approach, combined with Gandhi’s unspectacular charisma and inability to articulate a political vision, ensured that he rapidly lost traction among the masses, with nothing to show for the 10 years of organisation building. The result, as journalist Mihir Sharma frames it, is a feeling of sadness for any further criticism feels like “kicking a man when he is down”.

Akshat Khandelwal's Twitter handle is @akshat_khan. He can be contacted at